The trail of the world's most-wanted man was getting colder Monday after a flurry of raids in Brussels and an international dragnet led to nearly two dozen arrests and even more rumors, but no sign of Salah Abdeslam.
The baby-faced 26-year-old jihadist, who served as wheel man in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks that killed 130, was believed to be hiding in his native Brussels as recently as Sunday, when Belgium's beleaguered law enforcement authorities mounted raids throughout the city. But despite reports that were later discounted that Abdeslam had slipped through a police dragnet for the second time in 10 days and was seen speeding toward Germany, police acknowledged that they don't know where he is.
"The investigation will, in any case, be relentlessly continued," Belgian prosecutor Eric Van Der Sypt vowed, even as police union officials claimed they don't have the funding or investigative tools to come to grips with the city's growing terrorist problem.
"There are two terrorists in the Brussels region that could commit very dangerous acts."
- Bernard Clerfayt, mayor of Brussles municipality
Abdeslam is believed to have rented two cars used in the Paris attacks and reportedly has 2,000 police officers personally assigned to tracking him. The terror suspect, who may have gotten cold feet after dropping off members of the suicidal terror cell -- which included at least one of his brothers -- hails from the heavily-Muslim Sint-Jans-Molenbeek district in Brussels. During Sunday's raids, a car rammed police near a snack bar there, and was later seen speeding through a checkpoint set up on the E40 motorway to capture Abdeslam. German tabloid Bild reported that the car was headed toward Germany, but Belgian police said Monday the car was not involved in the terror investigation.
If Abdeslam managed to slip out of Brussels, it would be a chilling replay of his escape hours after the Paris attacks, when French police stopped him near the Belgian border in a car with two other men but allowed them to pass.
But he may have a long way to go through an ever-tightening gauntlet if he intends to stay free. Suspects, including one identified as Hamza Attou, one of two suspects charged by Belgian authorities for allegedly helping Abdeslam return to Brussels after the Paris attacks, reportedly told police he is wearing a suicide belt and hopes to eventually make his way to Syria. But other reports said Abdeslam may not be well-received by his Islamic State masters, who didn't expect him to live to tell about the attack.
In one potential sign Abdeslam didn't follow through with the terror cell's plan for everyone to go down in a blaze of twisted glory, police in Paris said Monday a suicide bomb belt was been found by a street cleaner.
A police official later said it contained bolts and the same type of explosives as those used in the Paris attacks, the Associated Press reported.
As Brussels remained shuttered, Prime Minister Charles Michel warned of an imminent terror attack that could be coordinated against multiple targets, like the one ISIS-linked radicals carried out in Paris. Michel said schools, universities and the underground system would have to remain closed Monday as police continue to hunt for the whereabouts of several suspected terrorists.
"What we fear is an attack similar to the one in Paris, with several individuals who could also possibly launch several attacks at the same time in multiple locations,” Michel said, listing possible targets -- including commercial centers, shopping streets and mass transit.
Abdeslam's escape may have been aided by austerity measures that have left Belgian police lacking critical equipment, according to police union Sypol, which claims efforts to come to grips with the city's exploding terror problem are being hampered by cuts in forensic services and basic recruitment.
"They don't have the white powder to reveal fingerprints at the scene of a crime," Sypol union member Eddy Leon told the Telegraph.
Abdeslam was just one of several committed jihadists feared to be at large in the city and ready to carry out attacks. While two of his brothers died in the Paris attack, another sibling, Mohamed, who was arrested following the attacks but released without charge, said Abdeslam may have been planning to kill himself but backed out after driving three Kalashnikov-toting jihadis -- including their brother Ibrahim -- to four restaurants in Paris' Canal Saint Martin.
"That is more than my hope, it is my conviction," he told reporters. "He was a very intelligent man and I believe that at the very last moment he changed his mind and decided to take a different path."
Urging his brother to surrender, Mohamed Abdeslam said, "We would rather see Salah in prison than in the cemetery."
Meanwhile, Belgian officials met in Brussels to decide whether to extend the sweeping lockdown that has turned the capital into an eerily silent ghost town. The mayor of one of Brussels' many municipalities, Schaerbeek, told reporters the city is still facing a grave threat.
"There are two terrorists in the Brussels region that could commit very dangerous acts," Bernard Clerfayt said.